How to Forgive

Paul’s charge to welcome others

Our church in downtown Los Angeles is going through Romans 15 as part of our Christ-Formation series. Paul is writing to the divided church in Rome around 57 CE and imploring them to get along. Verse 7 is especially rich: “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (ESV). There is the idea of acceptance in this verse based upon Christ’s actions toward us. How has Christ welcomed Christians? Certainly by first forgiving them.

Paul exhorts the Christians in Rome to welcome one another even though their differences are real. Since Jesus accepted you, you should do the same. One of the most welcoming actions the Christians in Rome could do was to forgive their fellow believers! Does it surprise you that since the earliest days the Church has been a place where you can get hurt? A pastor disappoints you, a church splits, or some other negative experience that drove you away from the Church for years. Since the very beginning of this God-ordained movement called the Church, it’s been full of imperfect people who failed to live up to their name. God is grieved that His Body has often failed to be the grace-filled, reconciling place that He intends it to be. There is no perfect church. The saying goes, if you ever find a perfect church then you’ll have to leave it if you don’t want to ruin it. Ghandi famously said that he was very impressed with Christ but not so much the Christians. Every one of us is imperfect so the Church is the perfect place for imperfect people. Paul’s teaching in Romans 15 is not only about accepting those different from you but forgiving those who have hurt you. Often that means forgiving Christians that have hurt you and that can be even harder! If a non-Christian hurts you then you can at least think, “Well, they don’t know any better!” We all have been hurt and none of us wants to be stuck in the paralyzed state of being unable to forgive. Even with Christ in our lives we are still capable of hurting others and find it hard to forgive those who have hurt us or failed us. How can we learn to forgive? I want to talk about two things: how to forgive someone and how to forgive yourself.

Forgiving oneself

If we want to grow then forgiveness is part of the path. Sometimes the hardest person to forgive is yourself. Eric Metaxas shares a story in his book, Miracles, about the actor April Hernandez, whom you might know from appearing in Freedom Writers with Hilary Swank or HBO’s Dexter. April grew up a poor and troubled youth in the Bronx, stuck in a series of abusive relationships. She found herself pregnant and went to the abortion clinic thinking it her only option. Waiting for the procedure she knew she didn’t want to go through with the procedure but through tears she consented to the abortion. Immediately after she awoke she knew she had made a mistake and carried the guilt for years. Even when she started attending church she sat in the back feeling distant from God, unable to forgive herself. But one day as the preacher spoke, something he said about forgiveness struck her. She wanted to be free from this guilt and through tears she came forward as the preacher instructed, crying out to God, “Father, forgive me!” In that moment she felt an energy pour though her, sending her to the ground. While lying there God spoke to her: “I forgive you my daughter, cry no more.” She knew it was God! Then He said, “But I need you to forgive yourself.”

Jesus says if we want to truly be His disciples than we are to love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. How can you love your neighbor if you don’t love yourself? How can you forgive your neighbor if you can’t allow God’s forgiveness to apply to yourself? God demands that we fully embrace the reality of our identity in Him: forgiven, restored and declared righteous in His eyes. This is who God says you are in Christ so don’t call God a liar by saying you are unforgiveable! Stop disrespecting God by not forgiving yourself when He has already forgiven you. It doesn’t make sense to keep hating the one God calls beloved in Christ–YOU! God wants us to accept our identity in Him and to share that love. Forgiving yourself is where to start.

Forgiving someone because their debt is God’s concern

Paul says in verse 7 to welcome one another because of Christ. Paul again says in Colossians 3:13 to forgive the offender as Christ forgave us. Jesus says in Luke 17 that if someone asks forgiveness seven times we are to forgive seven times. And Jesus Himself on the cross cries out to God, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24). And as He taught His disciples in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). What is clear from the Bible is that Jesus wants us to forgive because He forgives. Forgiving others is an essential quality of following Jesus. Do you have trouble forgiving others? Forgiving yourself?

When Jesus stopped Paul on his way to persecute the Church, Jesus said, “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4). Jesus takes the pain inflicted by others onto us personally. Those who have sinned against us actually owe a debt to God. Perhaps this one aspect of forgiveness is the one thing you need to hear: Forgiveness means you see that the offernder’s debt ultimately belongs to God and not ultimately to you. This is freeing because you aren’t meant to carry the weight of condemning someone else for their sins. It’s God’s job to judge. You weren’t wired to be God by judging others. That’s why you need to forgive, so you don’t destroy yourself in pretending to be God, holding their debt against them.

Ultimately they owe God much more than they owe you. Jesus doesn’t want you weighed down by un-forgiveness because only He can handle that weight. Does un-forgiveness weigh you down? You were never meant to play God by holding that debt against them.

Forgiveness is not condoning

But forgiveness is in no way condoning someone’s bad behavior. To forgive to is purposely choose a path of love over a path of hate, a path of hope over a path of despair. Verse 7 says to welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed you. It doesn’t say to not press charges or to stay in the toxic relationship or to accept bad behavior. Godly accepting is choosing Christ’s path of life over a path of destruction for them and for you. Yes, Colossians 3:13 says we should forgive because Christ forgave us BUT that doesn’t always mean we always achieve reconciliation with the person. 

Can you really forgive an unrepentant person?

Here’s a question I think about a lot: How can you fully reconcile if someone’s unwilling to sincerely repent? Jesus says in Luke 17 that if a believer has wronged you then you should forgive them AFTER you have rebuked them and AFTER they have repented! Forgiveness that leads to reconciliation requires repentance. You may not be able to fully reconcile with someone who is unsafe or isn’t sincere but you can forgive them to the extent that just as Christ has offered you forgiveness you shouldn’t hold their debt against them. Their debt belongs ultimately to God so I should move toward forgiveness even if they are unrepentant. This forgiveness I offer finds its power not in my own ability to forgive but rests in the fact that Christ has forgiven me and to allow His love to overflow from the center of my life to others. Because I am gifted with God’s unmerited favor, I cannot withhold that possibility of God’s restoring love from someone who has hurt me. No, you can’t fully reconcile with an unrepentant person, but you can pray for them as you move toward forgiveness.

Craig Groeschel, the author of the book, Christian Atheist, learned to pray for the man who had sexually abused his sister. It took months before his prayers became truly sincere but he knew he had to reconcile the gap between what he believed about Christ command to forgive and his inability to forgive this man. So he prayed, “God, I pray you work in his/her life.” Perhaps this is where God wants you to begin as you seek to forgive someone. Would you pray for that person you find it hard to forgive, “God, work in his/her life.”

The harmony that forgiveness brings

In Romans 15:5 Paul encourages believers to live in harmony. I like this picture because in music harmony is about bringing together things that are different to make something beautiful. Harmony in the church consists of imperfect people repenting from their sins toward God and one another because Christ gives them the power to forgive. Forgiveness is not forgetting or condoning or tolerating the offender or the offense in any way but rather a purposeful decision to invite Jesus into the pain in order to embrace His hope.

Pastor and therapist Ken Yabuki says this on forgiveness in his upcoming book, Why Bad Things Happen To Good People And What Can Be Done about It: A Christian Perspective:

“the more I experience God’s grace and forgiveness in my life, the less critical I become toward the imperfections I see in others. It is a liberating experience. The more I come to understand, accept and forgive myself, the easier it is for me to understand, accept and forgive my neighbor.”

In Romans 15, Paul is challenging you to apply forgiveness to others who have hurt you because Christ has first first forgiven you. This is not condoning their bad behavior or an expectation for you to be in relationship again with this person (especially if there is no repentance), but this is a declaration that you understand that the debt they owe is not to totally to you but ultimately a debt to God. Only God can wipe away their debt, their sin, and if there is repentance, Christ’s righteousness comes into their lives. Paul wants you to forgive yourself as well because of Christ’s work on the cross and this will free you to love and forgive others as well.